Tampopo, written and directed by Juzo Itami, was first released in Japan in 1985, and then subsequently in the U.S. in 1987. Even though the story is set in modern times, Itami himself calls the film a "noodle western", obviously a clever play on words to classify it as the Asian counterpart of "spaghetti westerns." Although the plot is a bit formulistic at times, it is still a quirky and creatively made comedy that I found thoroughly enjoyable.
Right off the bat, the movie starts off like a classic western. Goro, the hero of the film (complete with cowboy hat), rides into town. But instead of on a horse, this truck driver rides in on his delivery truck with his partner, passing through town while making deliveries. Goro is played by Tsutomu Yamazaki, who does a great job playing the role of the "western hero" - rugged, tough, and stoic.
While looking for a place to eat, Goro stumbles upon a small noodle house on the outskirts of Tokyo. Coincidentally, there are drunk patrons there at the time, and Goro soon finds himself in an argument with them over the noodles. In true cowboy fashion, they decide to "take it outside". But due to the overwhelming odds of five against one, Goro is injured in the fight. So the owner, Tampopo (played by Nobuko Miyamoto, Itami's real life wife), befriends Goro as she tends to his wounds.
As Goro gets to know Tampopo, he learns that she is a widow who is barely able to keep afloat the restaurant she and her husband opened. Tampopo, though willing and dedicated to do whatever it takes to save the business, simply didn't have the necessary skills as a chef. Admiring her resolve, Goro decides to train Tampopo in the art of making the perfect noodle bowl.
In addition to the main plot, this film is interlaced with seemingly random, subtly humorous vignettes. At first, I thought the director was simply taking a creative liberty and including them throughout the film as comedic interludes. However, upon further thought, I realized that each of these vignettes revolves around a central theme - food. And even more interestingly, they demonstrate how food can affect different aspects of our lives. For example, one such vignette shows how a couple uses food to enhance their sexual activity and passion. Another vignette shows how social standing can be defined or subverted by what a person knows about fine dining.
Throughout the story, Itami continues to apply the western theme to this unlikely subject of noodle soups. Many of the scenes were shot like those from classic westerns. For example, when Tampopo's training is put to the test, the whole scene is shot in a prolonged manner to express the intensity of the situation, reminiscent of a western shootout.
The story of Tampopo (which means Dandelion in English) may be simple, and it may resemble many other rags-to-riches movies as the main character works hard to achieve her dream. But it is still a fun movie-going experience. The film may not be for everyone though, because some of the aforementioned comedic vignettes can be perplexing and a little too graphic. However, I believe that these vignettes are what makes the film stand out.
Even though Tampopo was obviously a low-budget film, Itami was able to tell an entertaining, light-hearted story with a creative western twist, while also creating a humorous dedication to food. It is easy to see how Tampopo has become a cult classic.